No Mercy!

No Mercy!

Human life is sacred. So hang Tatsuya Ichihashi


Originally published on on November 2009

Japan is hardly a multicultural state, but the killing of British Nova teacher Lindsay Hawker in 2007 brings up many of the same issues that arise with interracial killings back home. Any failure to see justice done or tendency to treat the killer differently can lead to a whole community—even the majority—feeling aggrieved and alienated. This is the situation the foreign community now finds itself in following the arrest of the suspected killer Tatsuya Ichihashi.

So far, the fact that Lindsay was an attractive foreign woman with a family prepared to make repeated trips to Japan to keep the profile of the case high has clearly helped. Given Ichihashi’s obvious cunning and the incompetence of the police immediately following the murder, one suspects that if a Japanese woman had been murdered, the suspect would still be at large.

Nevertheless, there are still some aspects of the case that foreigners may find troubling, like the fact that although Lindsay has been dead for two years and seven months, Ichihashi has not yet (as I write) been charged with murder, but only the much lesser crime of “abandoning a body.” That hardly explains the ¥10 million reward, the posters at every police box, and the plastic surgery; Ichihashi is clearly the culprit. What’s more, his actions in avoiding arrest and seeking a new identity reveal a man who has suffered absolutely no remorse at his crime.

Under Japanese law, this makes Ichihashi a prime candidate for capital punishment. All things being equal, following his conviction for murder (of which there can now be little doubt), he will be sentenced to death, spend several years filing appeals, and then, after the justice minister has signed the death sentence, be taken to a place of execution, where a bag will be placed over his surgically altered face and a rope slung around his neck.

But the victory of the DPJ in the recent general elections threatens to complicate matters. The new justice minister is Keiko Chiba, a 61-year-old lawyer and former member of the Japan Socialist Party and an anti-death penalty activist for over 20 years.

While some see Chiba’s appointment as the effective end of the death penalty in Japan, this is unlikely. A 2005 opinion poll revealed over 80 percent of the population support capital punishment, and since her appointment, Chiba has been careful not to make any statements about supporting a moratorium on executions. Also telling is that she is planning to quit a lawmakers’ group opposing capital punishment to focus on her duties as justice minister.

Faced by the usual challenges of government, the DPJ is unlikely to squander its already drooping approval ratings by flying in the face of public opinion. Chiba is more likely to use her powers to prevent the execution of prisoners where the evidence of guilt is less than convincing—a not uncommon phenomenon in Japan—and to try to build general support for the abolition of capital punishment. So in the meantime, she is still likely to sign death warrants, including Ichihashi’s.

Ironically, one last hope for Hawker’s killer lies in the foreign community. The fact that there is no death penalty in the UK (against the wishes of most people, it should be said) and that many expats here oppose capital punishment could prompt the justice minister to treat this case differently than if the victim were Japanese. If that happens, it will be clear evidence of treating the murder of one race differently from that of another, what many people today like to refer to as “racism.”

For this reason, it is vital that the foreign community supports, if not the death penalty itself, then at least the principle of equivalence. Hawker’s killer should be dealt with in exactly the same manner as someone convicted of murdering a Japanese woman in identical circumstances.

One reason I believe that Japan still has the death penalty is because human life is regarded as sacred here in a way that it no longer is in the West. While Westerners tend to focus on people who are still living—in cases like this, that means always the killer, never the victim—the Japanese, by contrast, believe in honoring the lives of everyone. This naturally includes the dead, although, given Japan’s insularity, it can sometimes exclude foreigners. In this case, the foreign and Japanese communities must come together to honor the life of Lindsay Hawker by prosecuting her killer to the full extent of Japanese law.